What is a lawyer? How do I know if I’ve Found A Good One?

Our firm’s managing partner is fond of saying: They call us lawyers because we know the law. They call us attorneys because we are advocates for our clients. They call us counselors because we give advice to our clients. So now, do you know what a lawyer is? Let me give you my perspective (admittedly as a lawyer) about what a lawyer is, what he or she does, and what makes a good lawyer. Keep in mind, this is one guy’s perspective.

If you have ever had the need to hire a lawyer to help you in the legal system, to solve a problem, or to get out of a jam, then you probably already have your own very worthwhile opinion of what makes a good lawyer. If you’ve never had that opportunity, count yourself lucky. But be ready – you will likely need to consult me, or one of my colleagues, someday. When that day comes, be prepared with some expectations. I hope the following helps a little. Lawyers know the law All lawyers went to law school.

All lawyers passed the bar exam. All lawyers have a license to practice in their state, which is recognition from the state’s highest court that one knows the bare minimum to call herself a lawyer. How much law must you truly know to be a lawyer? Well, when I passed the bar exam I knew a little bit about a wide range of legal topics – including areas of the law in which I would never actually practice because I had no interest. But I had to know a wide-range of things to pass the bar exam. Is someone with very limited knowledge on a broad base of legal topics the best choice for your attorney? And how will you know how much they know? Unfortunately you won’t know what they know. You have to dig a little. Ask around. Do some research.

Certainly the internet is where most of us start our research today when we are looking to purchase needed goods and services. But anyone can say anything about any topic at anytime. How reliable is the information you find? You won’t know for sure until you dig a little deeper. There are some tell-tale signs of legal knowledge, though frankly they can be misleading. But taken together with other information you gather from research and talking with friends and colleagues, the signs can be of some value. For example, how did the lawyer do in law school? Did she graduate with honors? Did she participate in extracurricular activities such as law review (typically an academically challenging activity)? Did she compete in moot court competitions? What courses did she take? And how many times did she have to take the bar exam before she passed? These things may be of some value, but the value is minimal – especially if the lawyer has been practicing for a number of years. Check and see if he has begun to concentrate in certain areas of the law. (Note: In Indiana, one cannot “specialize” in a particular area. Our ethical rules prohibit us from calling ourselves “specialists.”)

But most of us certainly do concentrate our practice in particular areas and you can find out what experience an attorney has gained in the area in which you need legal help. Generally speaking, extensive experience in a certain area of practice translates into a healthy level of knowledge – such that you can find a lawyer who knows the law that you need help with. Is knowing the law enough? Let’s look further. Attorneys are advocates Has the attorney represented a good number of clients before tribunals, whether they be courts, agencies, boards, councils, or even in the boardroom? There is an old saying that goes: “There is no substitute for experience.” And while young and inexperienced attorneys may provide enthusiasm and energy, nothing can replace good old experience and know-how. Another saying our managing partner uses is: “I’m old enough to know what needs to be done and young enough to still have the energy to do it.” To me, that describes perfectly what one should be looking for when searching out an attorney. Look for one who is “seasoned” in the right areas of the law, but one who still has the enthusiasm and energy to tackle your challenges with no reservations.

A “seasoned” attorney may be young – but if his or her experience in a certain area is extensive, then they may indeed be seasoned enough to help you tackle your problem. When we attorneys advocate for our clients, we have a high responsibility to take the job very seriously. In fact, if we do not have the knowledge or experience to represent you in a particular area of the law, we have an ethical responsibility to tell you so. We may need to conduct research and learn more about the law.

We may need to consult with other, more seasoned attorneys. These kinds of things can get a less experienced attorney ready to work on your problem – and maybe that attorney will be a more economical choice. But when you need to bring to bear on your issue all the experience that years of advocacy will provide, look for an attorney who is seasoned in your area of the law – one who is energetic and devoted to the causes of his clients. In that way, you will be hiring a true advocate – one who will grab the wheel and not let anyone wrest away control unless and until he or she has achieved the very best outcome possible for the client. Remember, there are lawyers, and then there are true advocates. Those who know what it is like to stand in front of a judge and demand fair treatment under the law. Those who have experienced what it is like to stand in front of a jury and request justice for their client.

Those who command the courtroom. Those who are not afraid to tell the jury that, yes, my client is here to ask for a large dollar award because that is what the facts require! Those who have known both the great joy of victory and, yes, those who have tasted defeat – but did not face it timidly – rather, they chose to learn from the experience and to become an even better advocate for the client the next time. Counselors give advice I am sure you will admit that, as a child,  you hated to be told by your mom or dad that you could not do this or that activity that you just knew everyone else was doing, and that would result in enormous fun if you could just participate too. You hated it when you were told your could not attend this party, or hang out with that friend, because your parents knew you would be placing yourself in danger, or least in danger of being influenced in the wrong direction.

And I bet if you are honest with yourself today, you will admit that mom and dad knew something after all. In fact, maybe they were even right from time to time. Sometimes your lawyer needs to play the roll of mom or dad. Believe it or not, the law does not always permit you to do everything that your mind dreams up as a good idea! Or, sometimes the law may not prohibit what you want to do, but your lawyer may know from experience that it is just not a good idea. Maybe he is trying to help you stay out of trouble. Maybe he is trying to keep you on the straight and narrow path. Maybe he is trying to obtain for you the best outcome. But he always has your best interests in mind. You should be able to count on your lawyer’s advice.

This is not to say that everything your lawyer says is inarguably correct. But if you’ve chosen a lawyer who is knowledgeable and experienced, you will do yourself a healthy favor to listen to him. Lawyers are counselor’s. They have seen many clients, many issues, many decisions by courts and agencies, and they have a pretty good idea regarding the likelihood of success of whatever it is you wish to accomplish. A large part of what you pay for when you hire an attorney is his best advice. You hope it is good advice, but you know that at least it is the honest and carefully considered advice of one who has been down many of the roads you may be facing. You paid for his advice. Please listen. Even when it is not easy to hear. And just maybe, down the road, when you least expect it, you will say to yourself, “he knew what he was talking about and I’m glad I listened.” Just like you do when you think back to mom and dad’s advice in days gone by.   

What makes a good lawyer? Do you need one? As the wise sage used to say in a TV show from my youth: “Choose wisely, Grasshopper.” A lawyer can (and should) be a wonderful asset as you face whatever legal issue you are up against. It is not easy to identify the best ones. But if you follow the advice in this article, and you carefully consider the knowledge and experience of the attorney you are considering, you will greatly increase your odds of choosing wisely. And this is an important decision, because you opponent may hire us – and then where will you be?

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